Mario Alarcon eyed an illustrated pamphlet handed to him by Latino college students inside an Atlanta Highway laundromat on a recent Saturday morning.
Alarcon was one of 120,000 Georgians who in recent weeks was given a “fotonovela” encouraging Spanish-speaking immigrants to participate in the census.
“We’ll fill it out,” Alarcon told a reporter through an interpreter as his wife and adult daughter looked on. He said others within Gainesville’s large Latino population might need more convincing.
“They may be scared to give some information,” he said.
More than 20 Gainesville State College students fanned out across Hall County on a recent Saturday, leaving flyers and pamphlets at apartment doors and asking businesses permission to tape up posters advertising the census in Spanish. Their efforts were part of the Georgia Latino Complete Count Committee, a consortium of more than 120 groups across the state that are urging Latinos to participate in the census.
“This is a way for us to explain how important this is for their community,” said college student Karla Vazquez, 21. “They can get better schools, better roads, better health care for their kids. I think some of the people are misinformed. The undocumented people think this is a way for the government to find them. We have to tell them it’s not like that. It has nothing to do with their legal status; it’s safe.”
No group in America is more undercounted by the census than new immigrants.
In the 2000 census, about 33 percent of the households in Georgia that received a form did not respond, prompting follow-up visits by door-to-door census workers. Many believe the Hispanic community still was severely undercounted.
“In certain jurisdictions, the undercount was significant,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials and an organizer of the complete count committee. “I think this year, in particular in the state of Georgia, we’re better poised to reduce that undercount, or to eliminate it, which is the goal.”
The U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent estimates say that in Hall County, where the poultry industry has been a historical draw for immigrants, about 26 percent of the county’s population of 184,000 is Hispanic. Gonzalez believes the number is closer to 35 or 40 percent.
“A good indicator is what’s happening in the schools,” Gonzalez said.
According to the Georgia Department of Education, the Hall County school system’s student enrollment is 32 percent Hispanic. Enrollment in Gainesville city schools is 55 percent Hispanic.
But it’s the census data, not the school numbers, that are used to determine everything from federal funding to congressional districts.
“If Georgia gains a congressional seat or two, it’s going to be because of the growth of the Latino and immigrant population,” Gonzalez said. “We should make sure the redistricting process reflects the needs and concerns of that population they’re serving.”
Ross Alexander, an associate professor of political science at North Georgia College and State University, said some Hispanics may try to avoid the census “because of the perceived aggressive behavior toward illegal immigrants or those who are perceived to be illegal.”
They “might be wary of talking to any government official,” he said.
Carol Zaremba, a manager at the U.S. Census Bureau office in Gainesville, said great efforts are being made to ensure people the information is confidential.
“We are sworn to an oath,” she said. “We cannot share this information with anyone else.”
The 10 questions on this year’s census do not inquire about citizenship or legal residency status.
Zaremba said bilingual forms are being mailed out to homes in neighborhoods determined to be predominately Hispanic. Part of the preparations for the census included address checks that noted where Spanish-language forms may be needed.
Those who don’t receive a bilingual form can get one at one of several “Be Counted” boxes that will be set up in public places.
Those who can’t read or write can get help at a questionnaire assistance center.
Zaremba said the Census Bureau has bilingual recruiters working to get Spanish-speaking census workers in Hispanic neighborhoods.
Gonzalez said “there has been a massive effort by the bureau to ensure that the census takers will reflect the communities in which they live.”
“They know the neighborhoods, they know the places to go, they know that maybe there’s not just one house in the front, but another that’s rented in the back that needs to be counted as well.”
Carlos Penado was one of the two dozen Latino Gainesville State College students who drove and walked along the Atlanta Highway corridor spreading the word about the census with posters, pamphlets and word of mouth.
“You’re not going to get everybody,” he said. “There’s always going to be the people who are just unwilling to do it, and there’s not much you can do to change their mind. But we’re trying to at least reach the people who are scared to do it, and let them know that it’s OK.”
Gonzalez believes with enough campaigning, the problems of 10 years ago will not be repeated.
“In 2000, I do believe the Latino community was undercounted,” Gonzalez said. “In 2010, we’re making a concerted effort to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Said college student Luis Flores, 21, “We have a large Hispanic population here in Hall County, but we feel like we’re underrepresented. This is an opportunity to be represented.”